Something I weirdly kind of miss — to which Lockout (aka “Guy Pearce In Space Jail”) is a bit of a throwback — are the days when science-fiction and other genre films were a little disreputable. When there are no expectations for a picture to be good, one can revel a bit more in its glorious badness. This is the way to approach Lockout. It is, after all, a movie whose (anti) hero has to break into a jail, in space, whose reason for being in space is because, dude, space jail. It’s a combination of tried-and-true action movie tropes (its status as SF is nominal, coincidental, and secondary) and the beautifully conceived rhetorical question “Wouldn’t it be the raddest thing ever if the jail was in space???”
The opening scene, which also doubles as the beginning of the credit sequence, establishes the picture’s tone perfectly. Guy Pearce gets punched out of frame to reveal the names in the credits, only to get right back up each time to say something defiantly immature. A couple cursory identifying titles tell us “Guy Pearce is the good guy, Peter Stormare’s probably the bad guy, because he’s having someone punch the good guy, and the CIA and Secret Service are involved or something, and there’s going to be punching and smoking and stuff.” In more specific terms, Peter Stormare is convinced Guy Pearce — going here by the amusingly mixed-message mononym “Snow”; it’s got the tough-guy one syllable, which is contradicted by the extreme non-badassness of snow in anything less than epic quantities; this duality embodies a lot of what makes this picture so much fun — has killed a guy. There’s video evidence, so Snow’s pretty much toast. And, because as a very amusing transition informs us, despite the fact that Snow still uses a 2012-vintage iPhone, it’s sixty-some years in the future, the place convict Snow is going to do his time is....SPACE JAIL!!!
Because even in a movie like this, Guy Pearce going to space jail isn’t quite enough to hang a whole movie on, the president’s daughter (Maggie “Shannon from Lost” Grace) is paying space jail a visit to report on prisoner conditions. The warden assures her everything’s just fine and nothing could possibly go wrong, and brings out a particularly nasty piece of work (Joseph Gilgun) for her to interview. Wouldn’t you know it, the convict gets free and within minutes every prisoner in space jail is out and the staff and First Daughter are hostages.
This leads to the single best scene in the entire movie, and one of the most giddily self-aware moments in the annals of stupid (in the good sense) action cinema: the classic Good Cop/Bad Cop dynamic has been set up between Lennie James (the Good Cop, here doing an American accent so terrible it might be revenge for Don Cheadle’s Ocean’s “Cockney”) and Peter Stormare (obviously the Bad Cop), and is reflected here in their plans for how to fix this potentially disastrous space jail situation. Lennie James lays it out: we can do the sensible thing and send military personnel with an actual strategy that a rational human being might devise, “or we can send in one man.” Yes, Lennie James actually says those words. There, in a nutshell, is Lockout: a movie ridiculous enough to pull the whole “ONE MAN....” routine, but self-aware enough to realize that it’s that kind of movie, as well as the fact that in spite of it being dumb and having nothing to do with reality, that it’s secretly kind of awesome.
While Lockout (it’s so hard not to just call it “Space Jail”) makes an asset of strategically deployed and skillfully calibrated stupidity in ways rarely if ever seen, its pitch is occasionally off-key. The one area where the stupidity is less than sublime is in the way it treats its only significant female character. She rarely gets to be anything other than be “the President’s daughter” and the standard damsel in distress entirely at the mercy of the male hero. It doesn’t even really matter that Maggie Grace gives an odd, vacant performance in the role (in every close-up, her eyes look like she forgot to put her contacts in), even if she’d actually turned in a good performance, it wouldn’t have been able to transcend one of the more problematic aspects of this kind of action movie: they’re really regressive about gender. In Lockout’s case, it’s less consistently, glaringly sexist that it is a movie that sends up and celebrates genre conventions and simply kind of swings and misses when addressing The Part With The Girl.
That said, though, that one caveat is just about the only thing keeping Lockout from escapist action perfection. It quite literally raises action movie stupidity to an art form, a balance producer/co-writer/scenarist Luc Besson has been more or less perfecting his entire twenty-plus-year career. It recalls the tone of something like Besson’s classic The Fifth Element, but on the scale of later-career outings like District B13 and From Paris With Love, with the amiably caffeinated insanity shared by all three. If a movie where Guy Pearce (who’s great, by the way, even if his character’s a bit of a superannuated 12-year-old) kills a bunch of Scottish people in space sounds like your cup of tea, then by all means, go see this. But remember, when buying your ticket, it’s called Lockout, though the ticket clerk may know what you mean when you say you want a ticket for “Space Jail.” Because, seriously. Space Jail.